S'pore's longest serving ambassador to US Chan Heng Chee on Joe Biden: 'Nice, genuine & friendly'

Chan added that he's "a very warm person" who seeks to relate to people.

Kayla Wong | November 17, 2020, 11:28 AM

Professor Chan Heng Chee is an esteemed academic and diplomat who is currently chairing the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities in the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

She is also Ambassador-at-Large with the Singapore Foreign Ministry, and previously served as Singapore's Ambassador to the United States from 1996 to 2012.

In fact, Chan was the longest serving Singapore ambassador to the U.S., as she resided in Washington D.C. for sixteen years.

Sitting down with Mothership for an interview about a week after Biden was projected to be the President-elect, she recalled the times when she met then-Vice President Biden, and gave her thoughts on what the election means for the U.S., the world and Singapore.

Here's the transcript for part of the interview, edited for clarity.


For the benefit of many of us who might not be that updated on American politics, can you explain why there was a delay in the election results after election day on Nov. 3?

The U.S. is a continent, a big country, with a huge population, and so the votes are not that easy to be counted within a day. As this is a time of Covid too, they received far more mail-in ballots. Biden had recommended to Democrats to mail in their ballots and not go to the polling booths as they would be risking their health by gathering there.

So there were many mail-in votes, and they were counted after the votes that were done in person. So that's why initially, we saw that U.S. President Trump's numbers looked very healthy and very good.

Then when the mail-in votes started being counted, Biden caught up, which was expected by the way.

In the case of Pennsylvania, the problem was that their rule states that you don't count on the day of the election, not Nov.3. It's got to be counted on Nov. 4. So it's delayed in that way.

I think by and large, people accept the election result, that Biden had won.

But many of the U.S. states said there was no reason for a recount. There was no irregularities. The election went smoothly. So now you have President-elect Biden standing up and giving a speech to say he's won the election, and he's comfortable to say that.

Now, the thing is, President Trump has not conceded. And he won't concede and some of his friends will not agree for him to concede.

He won 72 million votes to Biden's 78 million votes so it's not like he won very few votes.

Why are so many people drawn to him?

72 million Americans voted for Donald Trump. It means they want four more years of Trump.

Some people cannot understand why. People vote for different reasons. The conventional wisdom was surely when you see how badly he handled the Covid-19 pandemic, Americans would vote against him.

In fact, no. The fact that he caught the virus, Democrats would say, "There you are, he just proved our point." Republicans would say, "Hey he recovered, he's a strong man. He's right. Don't make such a fuss about the virus because you can recover from it. So why wear a mask, and why not leave the economy open?"

America is divided society. People call this culture wars. It is a totally different culture, they have different perspectives, they want different things.

Republicans emphasise the family, God. They are pro-life, whereas Democrats are seen to be pro-choice.

Republicans are also not very tolerant of LGBT behaviour, well, some are, but that's if you're talking about the core.

So there are different issues. For globalisation, not for globalisation, immigration as well.

So they are divided on different issues. Some people are very happy Trump took a strong stance on immigration, and he will not allow populations from different places to come in.

Some people have said the Democrats stand for liberal values of the East Coast, the West Coast, and middle America doesn't think like that. So they are very glad Trump is standing for the values they stand for. So that's why you still get support for President Trump.

How about the minorities who support him?

Yes, some minorities have done well. His tax cuts were very popular. And his tax cuts were not just for the very rich, who had the tax cuts in perpetuity. The middle class had tax cuts too, but they finish at the end of 2020, I think.

Maybe they were hoping if Trump comes in, he's going to renew the tax cuts. Then the small and medium businesses received a lot of financial assistance. He was extremely generous. Interest rates were low, and there were stimulus packages.

And one thing to remember, for Hispanics, some say "Oh, he's been so bad about the wall and Mexicans, why did they vote for him?" Well, in Florida, the Hispanics happen to be Cuban. Venezuelan Americans dislike communism and socialism, and Trump painted Biden as a socialist. And I was told there were evangelical Puerto Ricans as well, who were very much pro-Trump.

The Trump campaign has filed multiple lawsuits in critical swing states to challenge the election result, do you think it is possible for him to prevail in the courts?

No, I doubt it very much.

It has to be challenged in the county and the state. Each state has their own rules. I don't think anybody can stand up and confidently tell you that they know the rules in all the states, so I can't answer that.

But Americans who are familiar with politics in the U.S. say it is unlikely his contestation would hold, although his strong supporters insist that in the end President Trump will trump.

If he refuses to leave the White House, do you think he would be forcibly removed?

I hope it doesn't come to that. Maybe some would accept the reality (of Biden winning), but this is only November.  So there's still December and January.

If we were to go beyond the U.S., why have certain countries congratulated Biden before others did?

Some leaders who shared the same time zone congratulated Biden earlier, but President Trump did not accept the results, so some countries were wondering what next, if there is to be a recount.

PM Lee has congratulated Biden and looks forward to working with him. Most of the countries in the Asia Pacific have done that. Canada was the first to do so as they were in the same timezone.

American allies, such as NATO allies, countries like Britain, were the first to congratulate (Biden), the others were a little slower.

Like China and Russia?

(Editor's note: This interview took place shortly before China congratulated Biden on Nov. 13.)

Well, they have said they will go by the official results. I suppose if you're in China or Russia's position, what's there to gain in rushing in first?

And if the result is overturned in any way, they could get a lot of flak for that. That would be one more reason to pick on China or Russia. So they are playing it very safe.

While most congressional Republicans have stood by Trump and refused to acknowledge Biden as the winner of the election, why hasn't Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell congratulated President-elect Biden?

I think it is because the Georgia senatorial election is still going on. And Mitch McConnell does not want to jeopardise that election result.

There are lots of people that are pro-Trump in Georgia, although Biden won it by a very narrow margin. So if he calls the election for Biden, people may be so put off they may not vote, and that might get the Democrat candidates in.

So because of that, I think, McConnell doesn't want to call the election.

You know, he is also watching President Trump. He wants to make sure what is Trump's position.

And there are other Republican senators who don't want to call because they are hoping to run for president in 2024, and you still need the voters, you need the Republicans who supported Trump.

We understand that you've met Biden before when you were serving as ambassador in the U.S. What was he like?

Biden was a senator when I was in the U.S., and you don't walk in and say "Hi senator I'll love to have a cup of tea with you."

It doesn't happen that way. Some ambassadors can get access, some don't, it's not that easy.

Their business is not talking to the ambassadors. Their business is to meet their constituents and try to get reelected, meet their funders, and their business is American.

Biden is interested in foreign affairs and was a big player in foreign affairs for a long time in the Senate. He was Senate chair of the Foreign Relations Committee during the time when held democrats held the majority in the Senate in different administrations at different times.

And so, you don't just walk up and say hi, I'd like to talk to you, Mr. Senator.

Usually we meet senators when we are with leaders, and I haven't met all the 100 senators.

Then-Senator Biden, at the time when I was in Washington, was more interested in Europe. John Kerry was the chair of the subcommittee on Asia. So it depends on who is chairing and there were different ones, and your paths don't naturally cross.

But when he was Vice President, I met him a couple of times because he shows up at receptions and post-receptions for ambassadors.

Ambassador Chan meeting then-Vice President Biden in Blair House, which is the official guesthouse of the U.S. in the administration -- PM Lee and former PM Goh Chok Tong have stayed at Blair House previously. (Photograph courtesy of Ambassador Chan Heng Chee)

Photograph courtesy of Ambassador Chan Heng Chee

They're very charming people. Nice, genuine, friendly people.

There was a grace about Jill, and I will say Biden is easy to be with and he likes to put people at ease. Because he came from a fairly humble background, and we all know, of the tragedies he has been through when he was a newly-elected senator -- his wife and his daughter died in a car crash.

So, he was left to look after the remaining family. And he used to go home every day taking Amtrak to Delaware, and he was in Washington. The train journey must have been a one or two hours each way. He was elected at the age of 29, the youngest senator at that time.

He's a very decent person, a very warm person, he seeks to relate to people.

How would you assess his ability to govern the U.S. for the next four years?

First and foremost, he would have to work with the U.S. Congress to get things done. It is imperative.

Biden, as senator, has worked in a bipartisan fashion. People hope he will bring his skills and recall some of the old friendships. So the Republican senators who have been there a long time and know Biden might say okay, we won't really make it that nasty for you.

So, they are hoping for that bipartisan partnership that he can bring, but it's only a tad, not a lot, as the U.S. is a very divided society. Never underestimate that.

He's going to have a difficult time. The Senate is controlled by the Republicans.

And this shows that some of the issues, the demands of the progressives may be rejected, so he's gonna walk back. And it's not easy.

Also, the first thing on the U.S. President's agenda is not foreign affairs. It is domestic affairs.

He cannot lift trade immediately. It's hard, and you don't take that up as the first issue. I do not expect him to do that in the first year.

He said he will join back the Paris Accord, and he would not pull out of WHO, and that's great.

I'm not sure if he would join back CPTPP. If he does it won't be in the first year.

He has got to deal with Covid-19 and the economic recovery first. And people are watching how he deals with China.

On his China policy, how do you think it would be?

There's a bipartisan agreement in the U.S., and Republicans and Democrats have arrived, it seems, at the position where they believe they have to be tough or even tougher with China.

I think President Biden is not into unpredictable, volatile tweets or postings. It's going to be a more predictable policy.

I'm hoping the decibels will be dialled down a bit. That would be helpful, and that some of the extremes will be tweaked, but it's not easy.

So Kamala Harris made history as the first woman of colour to be elected as Vice President. What do you think is the significance of her election for the U.S.?

Harris is the first woman Vice President of the U.S. That she is a woman of colour, that she represents the African American community, and that she also has Asian descent is huge, and I think that's great.

She's very articulate, and I wish her every success.

Would you say, perhaps, that American voters were making a statement by voting for the Biden-Harris ticket?

I don't want to overdraw. First of all, elections are not about the Vice President. They are about the presidential candidates.

Biden said he would pick a woman to show diversity and gender balance. So he chose Harris, and because of what happened, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, there was a strong sense that there should be an African American person on the ticket.

I would like to say it means something special. But I was in the U.S. when Barack Obama was elected as the first black president, and everybody thought America is post-racial now. Oh the stuff that was written during that time!

Do you know after that, the whole Senate, Congress, everybody gave President Obama a tough time?

And I said it was almost like buyers' remorse. The Republicans blocked a lot of his policies.

But they celebrated (his win), and that's the good thing about American politics. They can come together and vote for an African American to be president. But after that, they gave him a hard time.

Now, in this ticket, they voted for Biden and Harris. Biden, frankly, carried the race.

But if voters objected to Harris, it could have affected the result, but it's about Biden. The Vice President candidate should do no harm to the ticket, if he or she can energise the race so much the better.

If we could turn our attention to the local context, what was the impact of Trump's presidency on Singapore?

Singapore did quite well under the Trump administration. PM Lee and Trump met four times, which averages to one meeting each year, which is very hard to achieve.

A lot of other presidents or prime ministers don't meet the President of the U.S. the whole term!

We had four meetings. We deepened our Strategic Framework Agreement, which was a pretty good achievement.

We did work on TPP with them but it became CPTPP.

So that's how I see the Trump administration.

I think some of the claimants in the South China Sea liked that the during the Trump administration, FONOPs (Freedom of Navigation Operations) were regular, and that America took a tougher stance to try to push back on China.

But I think everyone in the region was uncomfortable with the way the U.S. fought with China on the trade war.

We knew they had to be tough, but the way it was conducted was sudden and volatile.

We were all affected (by the trade war), in our supply chains and so on.

When the rhetoric ratcheted up, we were concerned. So if you have a trade dispute that becomes a trade war, and then a technology war, you ask, is it going to become a Cold War? So people are concerned.

But I don't think the U.S. or China want to go to war. The cost is too high.

Which party do you think Singapore prefers to work with?

Singapore works well with both Republicans and Democrats, because we are regular partners, and we are reliable in that we work with any administration.

And we worked with the Democrats before. Some of those personalities will return.

We know people in the Biden team. If he has a regular team, there is a structured relationship, so I think we will work with the Biden team very well.

In the case of President Trump, because he didn't have so many members appointed to his team, sometimes you don't know who to work with, and you wonder how much of a say they have in matters, and who they would carry your message to.

Would Singapore get a U.S. ambassador?

I hope so, I hope they would send us an ambassador soon. I'm sure they are making representations to say this is important. We did okay -- without one for Trump's administration -- but that should not be the norm.

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Top image courtesy of Ambassador Chan